Apr 1, 2017

Thoughts on Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies

Last week I finished up Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Coming into the book, I'd often heard it as the pessimist's response to Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. I didn't really find that to be the case though: Bostrom certainly paints some scary pictures of potential futures as artificial intelligence develops, but he's not in denial about all of the positive potential. It's more that Bostrom felt there hadn't been a sufficient treatment of the downsides (and strategies to mitigate them) in the existing literature, so he sought to create that balance.

Getting through the read was a slog. It's probably one of the longest periods of time (a couple of months) I've spent on a book and still finished it. It's a topic I'm really passionate about too, more's the pity. The reality is that it's hard to relate to the topics that Bostrom digs into to a sufficient degree to justify spending time on the detail that he goes into. He spends 100 pages digging into the different structures of AGI systems and their relative merits and downsides vis-a-vis their capabilities and their potential to destroy humanity. I would be fascinated by the blog post. 100 pages is tough.

That being said, I don't think Superintelligence is a bad book. In fact, I think it serves as a great handbook to form a baseline for practitioners' future efforts to address the riskiness of developing AGI. After an initial read-through, the book may have lasting value as a reference guide when developers and researchers are diving into the actual development of these mitigation systems.

In all, I think Superintelligence is a must-read for any serious AI advocate. Most of the topics covered and the arguments presented won't be novel for someone who has spent time in the space, but it does provide a common language and frame of reference to drive future discussion. Relevant topics: superintelligence take-off scenarios, mediums (silicon, biological, swarm, etc.), types of systems, organizations that might pursue/achieve AGI.
Mar 31, 2017

Thoughts on Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

I just finished up the Elon Musk biography by Ashlee Vance earlier this week. It was a welcome fast read after the slog that was Superintelligence: captivating enough that I finished it in two or three days.

Embarrassingly for someone in my position, I didn't really know that much about Elon's story before reading the book. I knew he'd made his money at PayPal, vaguely remembered he had done a startup before then, and was aware of the broad exploits of Tesla and SpaceX. Despite having lived the history of those last two companies, I really didn't know much beyond the initial success of the Roadster to make electric cool, the ubiquity of the Model S, and the fact that SpaceX was successfully doing rocket launches. For anyone who's currently at a similar level of understanding, I highly recommend giving the book a read. It's a fascinating story and in many ways Elon Musk is the modern Henry Ford; it's a pity to not be more aware of the history he's creating every day.

In large part, I agree with Vance's interpretation: Elon Musk doesn't always make the most inspiring decisions and has been the beneficiary of no shortage of good luck; yet, he has consistently pushed hard tech forward in a way that virtually no one else has in recent history. Musk's work has undoubtedly propelled the world forward and it's ungenerous in the extreme to chalk all of that up to fortune. At the same time, Musk's fans must not ignore some of his missteps (notably being ousted as CEO of PayPal, which most employees at the time agree was the right decision as well as his contributions to the arguably unnecessary delays of the Roadster).

The biography has cemented for me a theme I've identified across other successful founder stories (Steve Jobs, Ben Horowitz, Rockefeller): an unrelenting dedication to making the company successful. In all of these cases, that has occasionally involved the use of amoral tactics (or at least ones that I don't personally agree with). These founders seem to embrace the mindset that the ends justify the means and anything that might interfere with those ends is a roadblock to be removed. This approach leads to the burning of plenty of fertile fields: firing top engineers, tarnishing the company's image in the public's mind, and destroying any semblance of balance in the founders' personal lives. And yet, the companies are successful and these founders have left their mark on the world.

Now, to some extent I could be seeing some survivor bias. Just because these four anecdotes have had hard-charging founders doesn't mean that being a hard-charging founder is a recipe for success (there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of companies in the startup graveyard that had similar founders). But it is interesting that these stories (and other success tales) don't tend to feature protagonists known for their compassion and patience.

Another important takeaway for me is how tenuous the situations of both Tesla and SpaceX looked for quite some time. It's easy now just a few short years later to assume that their success was destined. But throughout their early years there were plenty of times where it looked like failure was imminent.
Feb 1, 2017

Thoughts On Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

My friend, Ablorde, got my Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! for Christmas. The book wasn't on my radar at all: I knew Feynman was a prominent scientist (I probably could have come up with physicist if pressed), but not much beyond that. I certainly didn't know he had a semi-autobiographical book (two, actually). But Ablorde's recommendation mirrored those on the book's cover: outrageously funny anecdotes from a brilliant mind.

Ablorde, et. al weren't wrong: Feynman is funny. The collection is a loosely connected series of stories laying out Feynman's life: from his early explorations in fostering his intellectual curiosity as a child to winning the Nobel Prize. He colors outside those lines fairly frequently: talking about his love (lust?) of women, dancing, and exploring life. You very quickly realize that this isn't a crusty old man who just fiddles with equations in the evenings. But as open as Feynman is about certain elements of his personal life, he's also conspicuously quiet on others.

Over the course of his life, Feynman was married three times. The only context in which he mentions his first wive is her infirmity (she dies of tuberculosis). He spends some more on the second: a proposal via letter, an exhausting honeymoon that he didn't enjoy, a quick flame of a marriage (just a couple of years), and then collapse amid continuous argument. He mentions his third wife only enough to know that she existed.

One of the things that stood out for me from the book is how much our societal expectations around the treatment of gender and race have evolved in a relatively short time. Feynman wasn't beating women or leading lynch mobs (as far as I know), but the sheer insensitivity with which he talks about women and minorities is bizarre and foreign to my modern sensibilities. One chapter is on his firmly-learned lesson that his romantic results improved inversely with the quality and consideration with which he treated women.

Unfortunately, the most prominent emotions I felt from the book weren't levity or humor. It actually made me sad. Feynman strikes me as a consummate liar. I can't go so far as to say that he's compensating for some darker aspect of his life that he can't address directly, but there's enough evidence in the book to suggest that most of his stories are exaggerated to the point that they bear little resemblance to reality. I know that's the whole point (reference the title) and people think it's funny, but it just makes me sad for some reason.

That being said, it wasn't all gloomy. I found the story quite inspiring. Feynman values hard work, modesty, and rationality. He achieves great success and notability through the diligent application of those values.
Nov 19, 2016

Thoughts on the Lightbringer series

This one's a bit overdue. I read all 4 currently-written books of the Lightbringer series about a month back. It was a pretty serious reading binge unlike anything I've done (certainly off vacation) in years. It felt good. I'm not sure Lightbringer is good enough in its own right to justify the exceptionalism, but there was a confluence of events that made the opportunity ripe, not least of which is that the fourth book was released just as I finished the third.

My favorite thing about Lightbringer is the premise: a magic system based on the absorption and manipulation of colors of light. I think the execution was a bit flubbed... the actual use of the power typically takes the form of a blunt (magical) instrument and there's relatively little nuance to the system. Brent Weeks, the author, reels in that power by making it finite: a practitioner can only manipulate so much light in a lifetime for losing his or her sanity. The system works, but it's not quite as neat as I feel that it could be.

The writing feels unwieldy at times. The plot turns on major twists that aren't properly set up or explored. Secondary characters' motivations are sometimes never really properly explained. The economic system of the world feels like it would fall apart under anything more than the most cursory of inspections. The combination of these factors is probably what separates Lightbringer from being of the top fantasy series.

Still, they're good books. Engrossing. Entertaining. They delve into all of the standard themes you expect of fantasy. Special depth into what it means to be a good person and leader, moral relativism, and the pursuit of exceptionalism. A little heavy handed on the idea that talent is innate, not developed.

If the author gets the fifth (and final) book out soon enough, I'll definitely read it. But not a series that I would be eager to go through again.
Nov 19, 2016

Thoughts on American Gods

I'm well past due to read some more enriching non-fiction, but I was looking for an escape post-election and picked up American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Interesting premise... set in modern day America, but there are (hopefully this doesn't come as a spoiler) gods. The mythical pantheons of the world's religions are incarnated in human-like individuals existing among the population. Kind of a Dresden Files meets Lord of Light, except the powers of the gods are much more subtle.

The writing style and setting aren't my favorite and I don't think I'll continue with the series, but it was certainly an interesting read. There's something deep within all of us that yearns for a higher power. For some real (if not physical) manifestation of our hopes and superstitions. The theme of making supernatural beings real through faith and prayer is well-explored (Santa, gods, etc.), but there aren't that many books that set up an entire world on the premise.

That's it. Not a whole lot of other thoughts from the book. Entertaining. Kind of interesting. Ultimately not worth dwelling on.
Oct 15, 2016

Thoughts on Citizen of the Galaxy

I capped off my Scotland trip by reading Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy on the flight home. I've read a lot of Heinlein over the years, and I've always found it engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking, and world-view-expanding. Citizen of the Galaxy was no exception. There was one difference this time though: it's now painfully obvious how chauvinistic Heinlein's writing is.

Interestingly, I came to Citizen of the Galaxy as a part of my search for fiction with elements of education/learning. It's a fairly classic story: young boy born into unfortunate circumstances, through serendipity matched up with a world-class tutor, and the story of his triumphal rise from his situation. Unique (among such stories I've read) in that it takes place in a space opera setting: across planets around Earth. Not that best incarnation of that plot I've read, but then, Citizen of the Galaxy isn't considered one of Heinlein's top works.

Coincidentally, a week or so back, Uma and I had a discussion around the sexism in Heinlein's work, specifically Stranger in a Strange Land. To be fair to Heinlein, the sexism is more likely to take the form of gendered expectations of superiority in different domains than the outright belittling of women that was more common in the middle of the 20th century. But sexism it is.

Citizen of the Galaxy was a perfect example of this more subtle sexism. In the book there is a clan society ostensibly headed by a patriarchal figure. The book twists that structure with the addition of a matriarch that is not formally in charge, but indirectly controls the actions of the clan. Classic "behind every man..." marginalization of the leadership potential of women. Throughout the book, there is only a single female character that seeks to help the protagonist in any way. And she does so only after being set up by her powerful father as a romantic match for the protagonist then being rebuffed. Her aid doesn't come in the form of expert advice or sage wisdom, but in exercising the barest control of the small direct authority she does possess and exceeding the incredibly minimal expectations of her father.

I don't mean to belittle the literary value of Citizen of the Galaxy. It was a good book and I enjoyed reading it. It's just interesting the extent to which (most of) our society has evolved in the way it thinks about gender equality.
Oct 13, 2016

Thoughts on The Sirens of Titan

I finally had a chance to finish up The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut on the tail-end of my trip to Scotland. I had started the book back in September and struggled to get absorbed by it. A few other books came up in between and Sirens languished. Fortunately, I had abundant free time on my flights and in the airports back to the US, so I finished it up.

I became a Vonnegut fan back in high school upon reading "Harrison Bergeron", likely his most famous short story. I read Slaughterhouse Five a few years back, but I didn't really get the same kind of feel from it that I remember from high school. I came to The Sirens of Titan looking for that feeling, and I did eventually find it.

The book is an interesting one. Set in what I take to be the last quarter of the 20th century but with technology that won't exist for another hundred years or so. The plot doesn't really make a whole lot of sense, to say nothing of the "science" that underpins it. But that's not really the point. It's a story about the futility of everything: human civilization, the best laid plans of superhuman forces, individual will. Everything. I suppose it may be a reach, but the lesson is that the real value in life comes from the struggle against that futility (alternatively, there is no value to life).

The book explores a number of other worthwhile themes in its own bizarre way. I don't have the attention span to pick them apart with any level of detailed insight. Suffice to say that it scratched in itch that's been bothering me for over a decade.
Oct 8, 2016

Thoughts on Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

I'm about halfway through my tour of the Scottish highlands. Six days in and it's been a productive trip for reading. I'm behind on my typical annual pace of 30 books. Make It Stick was book #18 for the year. I'll probably finish the year short of the standard, but this trip has been helpful in getting caught up.

Make It Stick continues my investigation into the world of learning and education. I found the read fulfilling. It was more succinct with more relevant takeaways than the first book I read on the subject. Bonus points to the book for its opening chapter: a preview of all of the major points to be covered. This preface made my note taking (below) far easier, allowing me to just read straight through the rest.

So without further ado, here are the tactical strategies that rigorous academic studies have uncovered for more powerful learning:
  • It is better to break your study of a subject up into small pieces covered over a longer period of time (vs. cramming it into as little time as possible). The best long-term learning happens when a subject is re-broached as soon as the forgetting process has just begun to set in.
  • Over that time period, it is better to break up the study of the subject with other (possibly related) subjects, switching among them somewhat indiscriminately.
  • The most powerful form of practice is retrieval: forcing yourself to bring the subject matter back to mind (also known as testing/quizzing). This is far more effective than re-reading to gain fluency with the material. Frequent (low stakes) testing will also help identify weaknesses for more pointed review. Retrieval along the form of a free response question is more effective than when given options (e.g., multiple choice).
  • Learning can be primed by attempting to answer questions on the topic before learning the material. This is known as generation.
  • While learning style may have some grounding in preferences, no study has indicated that catering to individual learning styles improves learning.
  • Learning the underlying rules of a subject, and not just the examples of those rules' implementations, helps with adapting to new scenarios.
  • Elaborating on newly learned material helps cement it in the mind. Elaborating involves restating the lesson in your own words and forming your own mental model.
  • In general, the more you know about a topic, the more you can learn. That context helps you understand how a new lesson fits into the larger whole. There is no known limit to the amount humans can learn.
  • The more effortful the learning, the more likely to stick it is. This is counterintuitive to almost all learners, who associate effort with lack of progress. This is not true if the effort is due to an unhelpful impediment (e.g., trying to learn in a language you aren't fluent in).
  • While testing is good for a variety of reasons, low-stakes frequent quizzing is much better than occasional high-stakes examinations.
  • A large part of the value of testing comes from feedback on right and wrong answers; the great efficacy is seen when that feedback is just slightly delayed (so the examinee does not come to lean on it).
Oct 4, 2016

Thoughts on The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer

I just finished up The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson, a fantastic near-future novel that examines the personal and societal impacts of subversive education, across classes and cultures.

I stumbled across The Diamond Age while pursuing my interest in the universal online tutor idea. Just as Star Trek's tricorder serves as a sci-fi-originated template for a number of real advanced sensing devices, the primer from The Diamond Age has inspired a great deal of real technological work, all centered on bringing personalized education to the hands of children (or all people, more broadly). Think I'm just waxing poetic? This is one of the articles that led to me reading the book. The Kindle may not have implemented the full capabilities of the book's primer, but the fact that the engineering team was so inspired by the primer means that The Diamond Age has already had a massive impact on work in this direction.

Anyway, I'm not going to go deep into the specifics of the book here, as I do think you should read it for yourself. It was great: an instant classic in my mind. I large part of me wishes I had read it when I was younger; I think the impact on my motivation to learn would have been substantial.

While its focus on education was what brought me to The Diamond Age, it also covers central themes of what brings societies together (race, religion, shared experience, etc.), the effects of a society transitioning to post-scarcity, the metaphysical connectedness of humanity (presented through a scientifically realistic mechanism), and a variety of other fascinating topics. I'm not really doing the book justice here... but it really is wonderful. Trust me. Go read it.
Sep 17, 2016

Thoughts on Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology

My previous blog post on a universal online tutor got picked up on Hacker News. 10k views and a bunch of interesting e-mails from readers later, I'm pretty pumped about the idea of an AI-driven online tutor that can help bridge the knowledge divide.

To that end, I picked up Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America and read it on my flight to LA. In the book, Allan Collins and Richard Halverson dig into the struggles that technology has had ingratiating itself with the conservative education system. Over the past decade or two, technology optimists have variously predicted the impending tidal shifts of:

  • Paper textbooks being replaced by digital Wikipedia-like databases
  • Teacher lecturing substituted with decentralized peer- and self-learning
  • Traditional learning as we know it disappearing and being replaced by interactive games
  • Cultural education predominantly occurring through direct interactions with peers from around the world over the internet
  • Adaptive learning technology perfect tailoring material to the precise needs of the student

Unfortunately, as of the book's publishing in 2009, the American school system had perniciously resisted significant progress on any of these fronts. From 7 years in the future, I can't say that the landscape looks much different.

To explain the forces at work, the book lays out the three major ages of education in America. The first was the apprenticeship system, carried over from Europe during the Colonial era. Basic schooling was the responsibility of the family, which would ensure that children learned just what they needed to successful in their vocation (probably farming). With the advent of the industrial revolution, a variety of factors combined to shepherd in the age of universal schooling. All children would receive a comprehensive education, as ensured by the government. That is the system that we still live in, albeit in an evolved, mature form.

Collins and Halverson believe that we are now transitioning into the third age: the age of lifelong learning. Post-secondary education has become the de facto standard. Even beyond that, more and more companies are finding that they must take the continuously evolving learning needs of their employees into their own hands. In our current society of virtually infinite knowledge, classic K-12 Education is hopelessly ill-equipped to prepare children for the specific needs of their future careers. As such, it has taken on a "just in case" mentality: superficially covering as much material as possible in the hope that children will remember their lessons 15 years down the road when they are called upon to to recite the transitive property.

The takeaway is that in our modern era learning simply cannot be constrained to the four walls of the classic school building. The book digs into how the school system should be reshaped to reflect this reality, but that's a bit beyond my purview. I'm more interested in the role that extra-scholastic resources will play in this lifelong education. I fell that the potential for a universal online tutor is enormous.

A last thought on some of the factors that any such system should account for, as demonstrated by previous attempts to adapt learning for the digital world:

  • In adult education, you cannot teach someone a topic that they are not interested in learning. This is becoming more and more true at younger ages.
  • The best learning systems utilize "scaffolding": progressively exposing the learner only to the topic to be learned, thereby not overwhelming them with too many new concepts at the same time
  • Teaching should tightly couple real-world application of knowledge with underlying conceptual understanding
  • The best learning occurs when the student achieves the state of "flow": in which the distinctions between subject and object are blurred due to immersion in engaging activity
  • Multi-media teaching (video, graphics, text, interactivity) is far more powerful than relying on any single form of communication
  • Learning can be multiplied by offering students an opportunity to share their progress and work product with others
  • Similarly, it is important to introduce a social component in digital learning to magnify the effect of the education and to prevent isolation
  • Reflection--in which a student thinks back over what they have learned--is a vital component of sustained learning
  • In digital adaptive learning, summative and formative assessment can be combined for a seamless learning and evaluation experience
Aug 16, 2016

Thoughts on vN

I read vN this past weekend on the recommendation of Brad Feld. I was a bit disappointed when I first finished the book, rating it 3 stars on Goodreads. As I thought about it over the next 24 hours, I gradually came around to upgrading my rating to 4 stars.

The book takes place in a world in which humans coexist with humanoid robots: vN's. It covers all the themes you would expect it to: what it means to be human, how humanity treats sentient beings that aren't human, what happens when the "laws" governing robots' treatment of humans fails, etc. I was disappointed--first and foremost--because the examination of what "humanity" means fell short of my expectation. Most books like vN explore that theme through the question of what it is that separates AI from humans and why that means they should be treated differently. vN took away some of the power of that mirror by defining those differences somewhat more clearly than it really needed to. Still a strong reflection, but slightly more smudged than I was hoping.

Beyond that, the book was a fun read. I had no trouble powering through it in two plane rides over the course of the weekend. Bizarre at times and gave me a familiar sense of frustration with ambiguity (I'm looking at you Malazan), but all in all solid. 4 stars for making a good go at a subject that's near and dear to my heart.

By the way- apologies for all of the book takeaways recently. I was on a reading binge after my slog through Malazan. (not so) Regularly scheduled blog posts should return shortly.
Aug 9, 2016

Thoughts on The Way of Shadows

I finished up reading The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks yesterday. In case you couldn't tell, I've been on a bit of a reading kick recently. Specifically, a fantasy reading kick (to the extent that Harry Potter classifies). I realized I'm well behind my annual target of 30 books, largely due to my multi-month struggle with Gardens of the Moon, so I've been pulling double shifts to catch up.

The Way of Shadows was a fun read: it just took me a few days despite being a full-length novel (90k words?). I'm not sure how much more to say beyond that. It's certainly not a book I would come back to read again. There are two more books in the trilogy and I'm not sure which way I lean on finishing them out. Solid read, just not a lot of substance. If I'm behind on reading generally, then I've been woefully negligent on actual enriching reading. But maybe that's okay?

One thing I will say about The Way of Shadows is that it ventured further into some dark subjects than most fantasy books are willing to: torture, rape, murder. Not surprising--I guess--given that it's a book about an assassin. Despite its boldness in exploration, I'm not sure the book really gave those topics a thorough treatment. The full psychological and sociological impacts were hardly mentioned. You could, perhaps, make some inferences about their impacts on the main characters, but it just didn't feel all that well thought through. And I'm not sure that's a bad thing. If they had been, then it wouldn't have been nearly as effortless a read.
Aug 4, 2016

Thoughts on Harry Potter And The Cursed Child

I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child yesterday (it's a short book). J.K. Rowling's return to the Harry Potter universe violated her own vow to not drag Harry back into her stories, but fans received the book with a great deal of excitement and anticipation. Given the hype, it was maybe somewhat inevitable that they would be disappointed.

First off, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child isn't a book at all; it's the script for a play. I had heard that coming in, but I didn't fully internalize it. It took a while to get used to the format and it took a lot of conscious effort to forgive the medium for not being a novel. But--unlike other readers, including my wife--I did manage to clear that mental hurdle and ended up enjoying the story quite a bit. The engaging writing style, in-depth character development, and rich world building that Rowling's original series were known for can't shine through in a play script and I have to be honest in acknowledging that I missed them. Those elements are what made Harry Potter. Still, it was a good book in its own right.

At its core, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was about confronting the humanness of those that you idolize. In some ways, that's also translated through the book itself: childhood fans of the Harry Potter series forgot the flaws of the original books and were bound to be disappointed with the reality of Book 8. The perfect example within the story is the fans decrying Rowling for painting Harry as a "bad" father. It's fairly clear to me that (1) those people have never been parents and (2) they forgot what a giant twat Harry was for hundreds of pages through books 5-7. Did the story have weaknesses? Yes, definitely. I don't give a flying fig what Rowling says, it is not canon that Moaning Myrtle's real name is Myrtle Elizabeth Warren.

In short: good story, engaging read, solid dose of nostalgia, and a burgeoned desire to fly to London to see the play acted out.
Aug 3, 2016

Thoughts on The Light Fantastic

In regard to The Light Fantastic, the second book of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett.

This was an interesting one. Definitely not what I was expecting. Discworld is a famous fantasy series written starting in the 80's. I've heard of it for years and decided to give it a try after seeing it on /r/fantasy's top series list. I was expecting something along the lines of Kingkiller or Mistborn. Not quite. I guess it would have helped if I had understood what comic fantasy was (basically like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).

Although I had a bit of a rocky start with The Light Fantastic, by the time I even stopped to consider it I was a quarter of the way through the book. By the time I was half way, I realized that I was kind of liking it. By the end I decided that it had finished way too quickly. In short, the book grew on me as I read it. It's very light-hearted, has a very different approach than almost any other fantasy book I've read, and causes you to think in ways you wouldn't expect.

That being said, the Discworld series includes some 40+ books. It was enjoyable read, but I don't think I'm going to commit to spending the rest of 2016 and most of 2017 on it. So, fun one to think back on, but not compelling enough to get me to read the rest.
Jul 25, 2016

Thoughts on Gardens of the Moon

I'm holding true to my initiative to write down my thoughts after finishing each book I read. This one has taken an uncharacteristically long time... the book was Gardens of the Moon, first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, by Steven Erikson. I read it on Uma's recommendation, a recommendation I thought solid given that the series earns the #10 spot on /r/Fantasy's top Fantasy series' of all time. Well, /r/Fantasy was wrong and Uma was wrong.

It took me over 4 months to finish Gardens of the Moon. Why? Because it wasn't good. You know those books that intentionally withhold some information from the reader to build suspense / cultivate surprise or the ones that respect the reader by leaving room for interpretation? The ones that hide little nuggets that can only be appreciated on a second or third reading? Gardens of the Moon is kind of like those books, but shitty.

The author essentially never bothers to explain anything. He assumes that you'll read his books not twice or three times, but a dozen times to pick up all of the details and connections. His lack of explanation passes well beyond respectful into a strange realm of disrespect for the reader's time and energy.

There's probably a time in my life when I would have really appreciated Gardens of the Moon. That time of my life involved me typically playing World of Warcraft 18 hours a day. Adult me just doesn't have time to committing to reading a book ten more times. I could just save myself some time and stop reading 75% of the way through any other book for a similar effect.
Jul 3, 2016

Thoughts on FFIX

Going forward, I'm planning on writing down my thoughts on books after I finish reading them. Shout out to Brad Feld for the inspiration. This first post is on Final Fantasy 9. No, it's not a book. But it served a similar purpose in my life over the past few weeks, so it gets a write up anyway.

FFIX was originally released for the PlayStation in 2000. Final Fantasy is the series that defined the JRPG (Japanese Role Playing Game) genre, a type of video game that I spent a pretty good amount of my childhood engrossed in. In a series of greats, FFIX is often overlooked. It came out right before the PlayStation 2 was released with its new, shiny graphics capabilities. I'll be honest, I never did get very far in FFIX as a kid (I only ever beat FFV, FFVII, and FFX). While I've always been a fan of FFVII for the crown of "best of" in the series, there are a lot of people who hand that title to FFIX. Now I know what I was missing out on.

FFIX was ported over to mobile in February, providing a fantastic opportunity to dredge up some nostalgia for my childhood. I played it for the past few weeks in my downtime and got a real kick out of it. It was more engaging than most books I read and wasn't that hard to push through, even for some of the more boring parts. All in all, a great form of entertainment to break me away from my perpetual seriousness and concerns.

I've been an avid gamer for my whole life. A depressingly large number of my earliest memories are of playing games with my brothers and family: NES, SNES, DOS, and on and on. I stopped playing games for quite a while toward the tail end of high school after a full-year run in with World of Warcraft that threatened to capsize my progress in life. For about 6 years I would only allow myself to play free online games, on the thought that getting back into any "serious" game might re-trigger my dormant addiction.

Games re-entered my life in a meaningful way last year when I re-installed World of Warcraft and played with my wife, Uma. At the time, I was in the full grips of depression that had been triggered by the failure of our startup. I didn't realize it, but I was self-medicating with WoW. I've learned a bit more about it now, thanks in large-part to the lessons and research in SuperBetter. In short, the phenomenon of video games as an effective treatment for mental health issues is becoming a better understood fact. Uma was an absolute saint for playing with me and I'm not hooked on WoW anymore, but I've been a little less critical in my complete avoidance of games since. I played Pokemon for a short time (ah, those childhood memories) and have experimented with a few others. But FFIX is the first one that I've played from start to finish since my gaming rebirth.

FFIX touches on a number of deep themes that I didn't fully appreciate when first playing it at the age of 10. One of the most prevalent is the meaning of existence. Zidane and Vivi, two of the main characters, find out that they were engineered as weapons of war with the purpose of destroying the world. A good portion of the story is spent discovering their origins and what went "wrong" to result in them being moral, independent people. Many of the other characters also explore the meaning in their lives... Dagger is dedicated to her people as their queen, but what does that mean when her kingdom is destroyed? Steiner is sworn to defend the queen, but repeatedly fails in his duty. Does his life still have meaning?

There's another related theme around duty. In the cases of Steiner and Dagger, that duty is obvious and the choice is how to fulfill it. But what about Zidane? He is repeatedly thrust into a position of being one of the only people who can make a difference. But is that his responsibility? What if he decided to just run away and live his life quietly? It's a tough question to grapple with, and one that many struggle with in their real lives.

The story also deals with the complexity of friendship... how being a friend sometimes means never leaving someone behind, and other times means letting someone go. Of committing to always being there, but recognizing that there will be times that you let your friends down.

The resonance of the story's deep themes is aided in no small part by the beauty of the game's music and graphics. While the overall graphics of the game were largely overshadowed by the release of its older brother FFX on the new PlayStation 2 just months later, some of the cut scenes are positively gorgeous. The original request had called for about 20 musical pieces to fuel the game's ambiance, but the end-result was a masterpiece of 140 tracks by Japanese music legend Nobuo Uematsu.

In all, FFIX was a fantastic way to spend 30 hours of my life. Subconscious fed by perfect effort-reward dynamics, mind satisfied by fairly complex themes, and senses lulled by beautiful cinematics. As intellectually enriching as a book? Perhaps not. But something quite nice all the same.
Sep 14, 2015

Thoughts on Quantum Computing

There are few fields of burgeoning technology that people are simultaneously more excited and less knowledgeable about. That's fair: scientists seem to agree that quantum computers will eventually perform certain types of calculations many orders of magnitude faster than conventional computers while also admitting they have no idea if that will be in 10 years or 100.

Quantum computing is an interesting field. While quantum physics has existed for nearly a hundred years at this point, the idea of utilizing the principles in computing was really only put forward 30 years ago. The very first real-world applications of the theories didn't hit the scene until the past decade (and those at a scale far smaller than commercially applicable). Even the most ambitious projections put the first true quantum computer at least 5 to 10 years out. But there has been an interesting development recently.

D-Wave is the one company that claims to have a commercially-viable quantum computer. That statement may seem odd... they either do or they don't, right? Well, decide for yourself. In 2013 D-Wave released the second generation of its quantum annealer - a specialized processor that can only perform a very specific subset of tasks. Two copies of the processor have been purchased: one by Lockheed and one by Google/NASA. There has been a lot of critical reaction from numerous directions arguing that D-Wave's processor isn't a true general quantum computer, doesn't provide any speed-up over traditional computers, and may--in fact--not be a quantum computer at all. While the last argument, at least, has (essentially?) been disproven, there are still a lot of open questions. Despite the critics, D-Wave just announced last month the development of their third generation of quantum annealer, with twice as many qubits (just over 1,000).

D-Wave or not, quantum computers have yet to solve any meaningful problems in the real world. It's unclear when the technology will reach the point that it can begin opening up new opportunities. Despite that, there is some very real money changing hands. The two processors that D-Wave has sold? $10,000,000 a piece. The company has also entered into major contracts with Lockheed and others to help them understand the implications and possibilities of quantum computing. The Snowden papers revealed that the NSA was in the middle of an $80M research project to attempt to develop a quantum computer to break encryption codes.

So what, exactly, is it that people are looking forward to quantum computing doing? That's still a big question, though there are some early high potential ideas. The one area that the power of quantum computing has already been demonstrated in is factorization. Yeah, the 15=5*3 thing. It turns out that factoring immensely large numbers underpins a great deal of the encryption used today, including most of the security on the internet. Quantum computers can theoretically crack right through the security of banks, governments, and tech companies. On the other hand, they can also theoretically enable a whole new class of encryption with an even greater level of security.

Beyond the terrifying security applications, quantum computers have been shown to theoretically substantially speed unsorted database searches. Current searches take (on average) n/2 guesses. An algorithm has been developed for quantum computers to do it in the square root of n. The implications are huge for any company with large databases. Similarly, quantum computers may be able to solve optimization problems that were previously intractable with traditional algorithms. The potential cost savings for companies in the shipping/delivery and transportation industries are in the billions (imagine being able to optimize UPS deliveries over 5 days instead of 5 hours).

Of those with at least a passing knowledge of quantum computing, there is little doubt that the technology will fundamentally change a lot of industries. Once it reaches its first major inflection point, money will flock to quantum computers in the billions. The first big question is exactly what and where the impact will be: new applications are being dreamed up every day. The second (and much larger) big question is when: are we going to be overhauling the world's IT security in the next decade or is that task left to our great, great, great grandchildren?